David Melding praises a new book that he says provides an insightful assessment of the Scottish referendum debate
Although published last September, a year before the referendum date, David Torrance’s The Battle for Britain will probably stand out as the most succinct and insightful assessment of the independence question. Torrance’s powers of synthesis are on display throughout as a vast amount of material is analysed and reduced to essentials.
To take one example, seen through the eyes of Yes strategist Stephen Noon, the SNPs almost foolhardy ambition in pushing for independence when only a third of the public support it is not seen as foolhardy. Rather, he says the proposition has not been rejected, it is just “not proven”. For him there was all to play for.
There are many paradoxes at play in the independence debate and Torrance delights in exposing them. By stretching the devolution settlement and providing a competent alternative to Labour in Scotland, the SNP “became victims of their own success, they pushed the devolution settlement to its limits and generally kept Scots happy”. And somehow the SNP manages to accept that Scotland is economically the most thriving part of the UK outside London and the south east, yet Scotland’s economy is being held back by the Union.
While pro-independence supporters have tried to shift the axis of debate from blood and soil arguments about identity to political values like ‘saving’ the welfare state, Unionists have been left unsettled. Instead of welcoming this shift to more ulitarian arguments, Unionists seem at times an age behind the adept tactics of the SNP. This is perhaps summed up in Nicola Sturgeon’s call for voters to base their decision “not on how Scottish or British you feel, but on what kind of country you want Scotland to be and how best you think that can be achieved”.
Torrance is strong, too, on a frequently overlooked aspect of the ‘Battle for Britain’, its international dimension. If Britain, the world’s oldest multi-national democracy, breaks up there can be few multi-national states that would view the future with equanimity. As Charles King wrote in the prestigious American journal Foreign Affairs, “Scotland once embodied the belief that local distinctiveness, united government, and democratic practice were mutually reinforcing. It would be a shame if the Scottish model became something else, a handbook for transforming muscular regionalism into territorial separation”.
Vito Tanzi, the distinguished Italian economist, has gone further and speculated that if the age of the great states is ending, we may see the renaissance of city states – they are, after all, the oldest political units created by man! Perhaps London might one day follow Scotland on the path to secession.
Let us finish by considering the biggest paradox of all. David Torrance notes that survey after survey in Scotland demonstrates “a desire for neither the status quo nor independence but instead greater autonomy”. Enter a host of close constitutional cousins: federalism, devo-more and devo-max. None of them will be on the ballot – which is a straight Yes or No to independence – and there is little evidence of the Unionist parties uniting on an alternative to independence. This surely matters because without a clearly understood Unionist counter-offer, the independence vote will probably reach its maximum potential as the only way to urge constitutional change.
The Battle for Britain is an authoritative and lucid account of how the two armies faced up for battle. No doubt the best account of how the battle was actually lost and won will come in this excellent book’s sequel.